Happy (Not-)Labor Day

September 5th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work

Today, of course, isn’t the real labor day, merely a fake American version with origins in the machinations of anti-labor politicians.

Still, we can celebrate any day that’s a holiday. It may be true, as this New York Times op-ed says, that “Labor Day is meant to be a celebration of work”. But as the same article goes on to say:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do. And there’s no reason to think things will soon improve.

Rather than celebrate work, I’d prefer to celebrate workers. And the best way to truly pay respect to the workers of the world is not to glorify the misfortune of labor, but to celebrate those temporary moments of freedom from wage labor that the workers’ movement has managed to win.

Here are a couple of relevant passages on that theme. Via Malcolm Harris, I was recently reminded of this passage from Mario Tronti that makes that’s still relevant after nearly 50 years:

The contemporary forms of workers’ struggles in the heartlands of advanced capitalism unmistakably reveal, in the rich content of their own spontaneity, the slogan of the struggle against wage labor as the only possible means of striking real blows against capital. The party must be the organization of what already exists within the class, but which the class alone cannot succeed in organizing. No worker today is disposed to recognize the existence of labor outside capital. Labor equals exploitation: This is the logical prerequisite and historical result of capitalist civilization. From here there is no point of return. Workers have no time for the dignity of labor. The “pride of the producer” they leave entirely to the boss. Indeed, only the boss now remains to declaim eulogies in praise of labor. True, in the organized working-class movement this traditional chord is, unfortunately, still to be heard – but not in the working class itself; here there is no longer any room for ideology. Today, the working class need only look at itself to understand capital. It need only combat itself in order to destroy capital. It has to recognize itself as political power, deny itself as a productive force. For proof, we need only look at the moment of struggle itself: During the strike, the “producer” is immediately identified with the class enemy. The working class confronts its own labor as capital, as a hostile force, as an enemy – this is the point of departure not only for the antagonism, but for the organization of the antagonism.

If the alienation of the worker has any meaning, it is a highly revolutionary one. The organization of alienation: This is the only possible direction in which the party can lead the spontaneity of the class. The goal remains that of refusal, at a higher level: It becomes active and collective, a political refusal on a mass scale, organized and planned. Hence, the immediate task of working-class organization is to overcome passivity.

And then there’s this, from André Gorz’s misunderstood classic Farewell to the Working Class:

For workers, it is no longer a question of freeing themselves within work, putting themselves in control of work, or seizing power within the framework of their work. The point now is to free oneself from work by rejecting its nature, content, necessity and modalities. But to reject work is also to reject the traditional strategy and organisational forms of the working-class movement. It is no longer a question of winning power as a worker but of winning the power no longer to function as a worker. The power at issue is not at all the same as before. The class itself has entered into crisis.

So enjoy the beer and barbecues folks, and revel in your power not to function as a worker.

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